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Mental Health Center

Cutting and Self-Harm: Warning Signs and Treatment

Parents should watch for symptoms and encourage kids to get help.
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When An Inpatient Program Is Necessary

When kids just can't break the cycle through therapy, an inpatient program like SAFE Alternatives can help.

In their 30-day program, Lader and Conterio only treat patients who voluntarily request admission. "Anybody who can't perceive that they have a problem will be hard to treat," says Conterio. Those who come to us have recognized that they have a problem, that they need to stop. We tell them in the acceptance letter we send them, 'This is your first step toward empowering yourself.'"

When admitted to SAFE, patients sign a contract that they won't self-injure during that time. "We want to teach them to operate in the real world," says Lader. "That means making choices in response to emotional conflict -- healthier choices, rather than just self-injuring to feel better. We want them to understand why they are angry, show them how to handle their anger."

Although self-harm is not allowed, "we don't take away razors," Conterio adds. "They can shave. We don't take belts or shoe laces. The message we're sending is, 'We believe you're capable of making better choices.'"

Turning Inward to Heal

Many kids haven't thought about it at all -- exactly why they self-injure, says Lader. "It's like any addiction, if I can take a pill or self-medicate in some way, why deal with the problem? We teach people that cutting only works in the short term, and that it will only get worse and worse."

When kids learn to face their problems, they will quit self-harming, she adds. "Our goal is to get them to communicate what's wrong. Babies don't have the capacity for language, so they use behavior. These adolescents regress to that preverbal state when they self-harm."

Individual and group therapy are the hubs of this treatment program. If there is underlying depression or anxiety, antidepressants may be prescribed. The patients also write regularly in their journals -- to learn to explore and express their feelings.

Helping them gain self-respect and self-esteem is a critical treatment goal, Conterio tells WebMD.

"Many kids have difficulty dealing with situations and people that make them angry," Lader adds. "They don't have great role models for that. Saying no, standing up to people -- they don't really believe they're allowed to do that, especially girls. But if you can't do that, it's very difficult to maneuver the world, survive in the world without someone stronger, more capable than you to fight your battles."

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